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Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has recently reaffirmed his commitment to disband regional armed groups. Previous efforts by the government to impose federal authority across the country notably contributed to the outbreak of the war in Tigray in 2020.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 14 July 2023.

  • The prime minister has said he will continue security operations to disband regional armed groups in Ethiopia into 2024
  • We assess with moderate confidence that even within affected regions, widespread fighting is unlikely
  • Still, security operations mean sporadic armed clashes and violent protests will probably recur, particularly in Amhara and Beniganshul-Gumuz (West)

Militias currently appear to be focused on obtaining self-determination in their respective regions. And groups that are still active do not seem willing (or able) to threaten the authorities in Addis Ababa, in our analysis, making widespread conflict unlikely.

Still, some militias are very likely to attempt to resist disarmament efforts. This is particularly in Amhara, where in April security operations by federal forces to disarm militias led to violent confrontations. Further attempts by the government to disarm such groups are likely to sustain the already-high likelihood of armed violence there and in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. These have previously mostly taken place across rural areas of western regions. Reactive and violent protests of several hundred people against security operations are also probable during these.

Ahmed appears determined to integrate regional groups into the federal forces. During a speech to parliament on 6 July he reiterated that ‘there will be no armed military other than the defence and police’. He said the ongoing conflict in Sudan showed the ‘significant risk to national unity’ that regional armed groups pose. Based on press reports, the following groups have agreed to comply:

  • The Gambela Liberation Front (talks held in April 2023)
  • The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (November 2022 peace agreement)
  • The Gumuz People’s Democratic Movement (October 2022)

But the authorities have also launched military operations to forcefully disarm other groups. This decision remains very unpopular in certain parts of the country in recent years, notably in Amhara. Senior Amharan members have repeatedly said that the dismantling of local groups (‘Fano’ militia) would leave the region exposed to attacks by Oromia-based groups, and undermine its ability to retain control of parts of western Tigray it captured during the Tigray war.

Bouts of armed violence likely

Widespread regional fighting around these operations appears unlikely on current indications. The federal forces are still engaging in near-daily confrontations with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in Oromia and we assess they will probably want to avoid getting bogged down in another regional conflict. Both sides ended peace talks earlier this year without reaching an agreement. Other armed groups have also mostly employed hit-and-run tactics indicating that they do not have the resources to sustain region-wide fighting.

Government attempts to curtail regional groups are likely to lead to bouts of armed violence this year. This is particularly in Ahmara where opposition to this measure is most acute. But such violence is also plausible in areas where there have recently been peace talks or agreements, such as Benishangul-Gumuz. This is because there are dissident factions who oppose any agreement with Addis Ababa. Signalling this, local media outlets reported on 8 July that gunmen there ‘who refused to disarm’ ambushed a security convoy and killed 18 people near Gilgel Beles.

Ambushes on security convoys and checkpoints along rural roads are the most likely form of confrontation. A government operation in April to disarm groups in Amhara led to several weeks of sporadic clashes between militia and security forces there. Based on local media reporting at the time, these mainly took place in rural areas and along major intercity roads. This is probably because armed groups were attempting to stop the advance of federal forces towards main towns. Groups outside of Amhara seem to be less capable, so the frequency and scale of confrontations elsewhere will probably be comparatively low.

Bystanders are at risk, even though they are not a target. This is particularly relevant for humanitarian organisations, which tend to have a larger presence in rural areas. During government operations in April, the Ethiopian Red Cross said that ‘unknown armed forces’ shot at one of its ambulances in Central Gondar. International news outlets also said that two aid workers from the Catholic Relief Services were killed by unidentified gunmen as those operations were underway. There is no evidence that these were deliberately targeted.

Popular support for militias

Sporadic and short-lived but violent protests are also likely. These have previously been largely reactive, occurring where and when federal forces move in to carry out new operations rather than organised protest campaigns. These have tended to happen in large towns and along major intercity roads in rural areas. Earlier this year in Amhara several hundred people protested in Bahir Dar, Gondar, Kobe, Sekota and Woldia. In Benishangul-Gumuz, protests are likely across the Metekel zone, where armed groups are most active.

There is a high chance of violent clashes during those protests. Participants at previous incidents have attempted to prevent federal forces from moving across the province and reaching large towns by blocking major thoroughfares. The police typically respond with tear gas and batons at these protests. But based on demonstrations across Ethiopia in recent years, they would very likely use live ammunition to disperse larger or disorderly demonstrations. The authorities have also previously enforced mobile network restrictions to limit mobilisation.

Image: Members of the Afar militia stand at a checkpoint at the entrance of the town of Abala, Ethiopia, on 8 June 2022. Photo by Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images.